When Cruelty Squad came out last summer, I wasn’t sure what to think about it. I couldn’t bring myself to buy it because its whole aesthetic was too vile. It looked like a gunman from a voxel-based shooter had been dropped into Windows 95’s “Maze” screensaver (with all the wall textures randomized); or maybe like a homemade Quake mod on a CD that the cops pulled out from under the bed of a 90s teenager who had just gone wild.
And yet, Cruelty Squad intrigued me, sitting right between my beloved immersive sim and boomer shooter genres, offering great freedom of play in its sprawling levels, and a vast arsenal of gear that lets you do swing, super jump and jet-boost around these psychedelic nightmarish levels, set in a near-future corporate dystopia.
Obviously this aesthetic is deliberate and befitting a game world in which I understood you to feast on human flesh, buy and sell human organs on the stock exchange and run around murdering various corporate weirdos while the civilians run thoughtlessly through the streets. joking about how much they love their meaningless zero hour jobs. It seemed there was a method behind the madness.
Finally, last week, I dove into this pool of gory, high-visibility grime. It’s not easy to find its feet here, in part because, both aesthetically and design-wise, this is a game that doesn’t really seem to care whether you like it or not. But it still packs a hellish punch, delivering a cold commentary on the disenfranchisement and corporate alienation that’s usually the preserve of more conventional cyberpunk games. In fact, it’s complete disregard for cyberpunk – or any other, for that matter – visual language that Craft Cruelty Squad is such an effective channel to talk about
Everything in Cruelty Squad is designed for discomfort. The eerie Adlib-like title music – played while the camera slowly circles around a car with a dead man inside that has a piece of skull missing – wouldn’t hurt in an obscure point-to-point horror game. 90s click; the menu is incomprehensible, at least at first, and there is a permanent border around the playback screen. Your health display is a snotty glob that’s way too big and too close to the center of your screen, while your ammo display is also very intrusive.
It’s a game that puts you on your toes from the start, goading you with its cunning repulsion and throwing you straight into a mission where you have to kill a CEO of a big pharmaceutical company who embezzles funds and flies into tantrums and ‘vomited blood all over the office. The environments are dizzying Wrong, with maddeningly repeated textures throughout; an entire room can be wallpapered with a pattern of the same strange face staring back at you, while secret doors are fleshy openings for you to put your hand through. There are throngs of civilians in the game, wandering aimlessly and spouting mindless platitudes about the value of work while at times revealing just how worthless and alienating that work really is in this gig-economy driven world.
Everything in Cruelty Squad adds up to evoke a state of detachment in the player. Just about any other game set in this world would opt for a cyberpunk setting of neon lights and giant advertising screens adorning skyscrapers that tower above the smoldering, struggling streets far below. But where the cyberpunk setting in games often feels all too familiar now, often falling too comfortably into themes and tropes popularized by Blade Runner in the 80s, Cruelty Squad infuses those themes with every oozing pore – from its aesthetic to its user interface, its missions and dialogue.
Its exploitative corporate world isn’t filled with slick, fit sociopaths with weird eye augmentations, but much weirder characters, like cult leaders and toy company executives who are so obsessed with their own product (Chunkopops, the game equivalent of Funko Pop Vinyls) that they line their entire desk with it. In one mission, your target is a successful aerospace CEO who needs to be killed because his commercial spaceflights had too low a failure rate, meaning they didn’t meet the “sacrifice” quota. human”.
This isn’t your typical cyberpunk story of corporate dictatorship, but rather of corporations gone crazy.
You get body augmentations in-game, but instead of being the kind of slick flesh-tech fusions that make you look like Adam Jensen’s second coming from Deus Ex (i.e. cool as fuck shit), they go all out in the realm of Cronenbourg body horror; huge holes carved into your back that shoot out a “sticky jet of liquid” serve as a hyperspeed booster, an “outer gut” that lets you swing through levels, and a twisted flesh suit for body armor. All the tropey finesse of cyberpunk fiction is replaced with a visceral squelchiness that really makes you wonder if a world in which man and machine merge – Elon Musk’s dream – is really all he is. is supposed to be.
Even though you’re killing the stock market and blasting through levels with maximum efficiency thanks to a perfectly synergized mix of weapons and body augmentations, you feel disgusted and alienated from the world and your own body.
Even when you’re clearly much more powerful than everything and everyone on the level, there’s no sense of heroism here, no meaningful journey for you. In a way, you’re just as much a wage slave as those civilians you talk to, obsessively checking the stock market amid murderous missions to see if you can whip that brain you just pulled from a pile. of gore.
Do I really like Cruelty Squad? I don’t know, but maybe it doesn’t matter, because he has a powerful vision, opening up stilted cyberpunk themes and splashing them all over the grim, wary walls.